Ruralization

Inderøy, in Trøndelag County, Norway, is my Amenia, in New York, USA, my Bournville, in Worcestershire, England, or my Powell River, in British Columbia, Canada. These are, in their various ways, manifestations of the Garden City movement. These places are mentioned, because much of this weblog post involves the name dropping of people who have contributed to my understanding of the importance of the rural environment, along with some of the books they have written, and the concepts they have developed.

I will begin with a distant memory of a monologue by landscape architect, Clive Justice (1926 – ). During dinner he berated the people present, for regarding agriculture as a benign intrusion on nature. Creating farm fields while destroying the natural environment was not something that should be done unless it was absolutely necessary. That dinner was probably held over fifty years ago, and other people who were present may have had completely different memories from the event.

The firm of Justice & Webb, landscape architects, worked on many divergent planning projects, including the village of Gold River. The site of Gold River is in the traditional territory of the Mowachaht and Muchalaht peoples on the west coast of Vancouver Island. In the 1860s Chinese gold miners were attracted to the area, and started panning for gold. The name Gold River first appeared on maps in 1871. In the early 1960s the Tahsis company logged at the mouth of the Gold River, before building a pulp mill there. The site was chosen because of the flat delta land, deep-sea access for freighters, and an adequate supply of fresh water needed to make pulp. With a population of about 1 500, it is too small to be considered a Garden City. Yet, some might regard it as an almost ideal retirement location – apart from the rain!

The nominal starting point for the Garden City movement begins with the publication of Edward Bellamy’s (1850 -1898) novel, Looking Backward: 2000 – 1887 (1888). It tells the story of Julian West, who sleeps for 113 years, waking in 2000, to find a transformed America, that has become a socialist utopia. Guided by Doctor Leete who explains life in this new age, including reduced working hours, low retirement age, an almost instantaneous delivery of goods and free public kitchens. The book discusses problems with capitalism, the nationalization of industry, the use of an industrial army for production and distribution and the free delivery of cultural products and experiences.

A more practical start for the Garden City movement begins with Ebenezer Howard (1850 – 1928), an English urban planner, with the construction of Letchworth Garden City in 1903. Before this, Howard had written To-Morrow: A Peaceful Path to Real Reform (1898), which described a utopian city in which people live harmoniously together. Howard was inspired by Belamy’s book to include the benefits of both the natural, rural and urban environments while avoiding their disadvantages.

Howard was also an advocate of Georgism, also called Geoism, proposed by the American Henry George (1839 – 1897), and described in Progress and Poverty (1879), a book that investigates the paradox of increasing inequality and poverty amid economic and technological progress, the cyclic nature of industrialized economies, and the use of land value tax (rent capture) and other anti-monopoly reforms to resolve social problems. After deciding against gold mining in British Columbia, George worked as a printer and sometime journalist for the San Francisco Times. Georgism was only one of a number of alternative economic systems proposed over the years. Two others that have been influential were the Social Credit movement, and Technocracy.

Yet, Howard was not alone in his aspirations. Patrick Geddes (1854 – 1932) was a pioneering town planner, a Francophile with roots in Scotland. His contributions include the introduced the concept of region, and invented the term conurbation. Later, he explained how neotechnics could remake a world freed from over-commercialization. He was influenced by Herbert Spencer (1820–1903), explaining the evolution of society using Spencer evolutionary biology’s metaphors, and Frederic Le Play (1806–1882), using Le Play’s analysis of the key units of society as constituting Lieu, Travail, Famille (Place, Work, Family), but changing Family to Folk. Both Geddes and Le Play regarded the family as the central biological unit of human society.

The English planned city that I am most attracted to is Bournville, near Birmingham. In the early twenty teens, I had even arranged for twenty pupils and myself to visit it, a nearby Cadbury factory, and several other facilities including the Lode Lane Jaguar/ Land Rover plant in Solihull. However, these plans were scuttled when the pupils decided they would prefer to visit southern Spain. Since the school could easily see that there was no real educational purpose to this proposal, they didn’t get any school trip in the end.

Bournville village started in 1893, with George Cadbury’s purchase of 0.5 km² of land close to the Cadbury works, with the view of creating a village that would ‘alleviate the evils of modern, more cramped living conditions’. By 1900, the village consisted of 313 Arts and Crafts residences on 1.3 km2 of land. These houses featured traditional exteriors, modern interiors and large gardens. They were designed by William Alexander Harvey. These designs became a blueprint for many other model villages. Currently, there are 7 800 houses on 4 km² of land with 0.4 km² of parks and open spaces.

Lewis (1895 – 1990) and Sophia (1900 – 1997) Mumford bought 5.5 Ha of property in Amenia, along with a house and a remise/ carriage house/ cart shed (later modified into a garage) in the late 1920s, originally as a summer residence. By the mid-1930s, and for the rest of their lives, they lived there permanently, apart from sojourns for teaching purposes. This experience of living in a rural area influenced Mumford’s thinking about cities.

Among Mumford’s circle of friends was Frederic Osborn (1885–1978), who was influential in the British garden city movement, especially his direct involvement with Welwyn Garden City.

Another friend was Clarence Stein (1882 – 1975), who was intimately connected with the North American garden city movement. This found expression in the British Columbia city of Kitimat, a town that came into existence in 1951 after the British Columbia government invited Alcan to develop an aluminum smelter, including a dam, a 16 km connecting tunnel, a powerhouse, 82 km transmission line, a deep-sea terminal in addition to the smelter. Stein was engaged by Alcan to design/ plan Kitimat so that it would attract and retain workers. Stein’s design separated industry from the residential community, with large areas for expansion. The design featured looped streets surrounding a mall linked with 45 km of connecting walkways. With a population of about 8 000, an area of about 242 km2, it is located on the coast in a wide, flat valley. At 54 N 128 W, it represents an almost ideal retirement location – apart from the snow!

The third and (in my opinion) best retirement location to be mentioned here is Powell River. With a population of about 13 000 people in its 29 km2 city, and 17 000 in total throughout the area (occupying about 800 km2) it is a comfortably sized small town. It provides a Mediterranean climate of the warm-summer type (Köppen: Csb), not normally found so far north. Its historic townsite was designated a National Historic Site of Canada in 1995, “recognizing the exceptionally well preserved early 20th Century planned community, rooted firmly in the Garden City Design Movement and the Arts and Crafts philosophy.” It is home to the Patricia Theatre, Canada’s oldest continuously operating theatre, built in 1913 and rebuilt in 1928 a Spanish renaissance-style which gave it good acoustics. It also hosts the first credit union in British Columbia (dating from 1939).

Trish and I visited Inderøy in 1979, at the age of 29 and 30, respectively. We moved there permanently ten years later, at the age of 38 and 39. The question many ask, most notably myself on numerous occasions, is why? Once again, it is a location that provides the benefits of both the natural, rural and urban environments while avoiding their disadvantages.

This reasoning comes into conflict with the two most important answers to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything. The answer may be 42 (at least according to Douglas Adams, 1952 – 2001) but according to Geoffrey West (1940 – ), author of Scale: the universal laws of growth, innovation, sustainability, and the pace of life in organisms, cities, economies, and companies, the most important urban number is 115%. To understand it better, some people may prefer the TED talk explanation.

This answer uses an exponential function where x is raised to the power of y, often written x^y, but better understood using pizzas. Say that a city of 10 000 people has one pizzeria. In a culturally similar city of 20 000 people (a doubling), there should not be two pizzerias, but 2.2191, if fractional pizzerias were allowed. At a population of 40 000 this becomes five (4.9245) pizzerias. At 100 000 it is up to 14 (.1254), This magical number comes from: finding the increased population ratio: 200 000 / 100 000 = 2. Then using this population ratio, the current number of pizzerias, and the magic number: x^y is x to the power of y = 1.15.

This series of numbers continues, so that a city with 400 000 people has not 40 or 46 pizzerias, but 53. Yes, this involved a rounding to the closest whole number from the calculated result of 52.9, as does the calculation for a city of 800 000 people, which ends up with 122 pizzerias, when the calculation yields 121.67.

These extra pizzerias are regarded as an advantage because they increase choice. Then, along comes COVID-19, and these same cities face the negative consequences of this number game. Following the logic of the first example (but without any science), if a city of 200 000 experiences 23 deaths, then a city of 100 000 (half the size) will experience 10 deaths. In this case it is more advantageous to live in a smaller city. Some people might be astute enough to understand that it might be better not to live in a city at all.

My response to Geoffrey West is that people do not need more choice, but less. Tranquillity and simplicity are two of the most important virtues to be valued, if only because it gives people more time to indulge their interests, including the enjoyment of the natural environment, and craftspersonship.

Some of the most important books of the twenty-tens are about economics and society. These include: Rutger Bregman’s (1988 – ) Utopia for Realists: The Case for a Universal Basic Income, Open Borders, and a 15-hour Workweek (2016), Thomas Piketty’s (1971 – ) Capital in the Twenty-First Century (2013) and Capital and Ideology (2019), as well as Kate Raworth’s (1970 – ) Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st Century Economist (2017). Bregman’s and Raworth’s ideas were discussed in a Keywords weblog post.

Full disclosure: I have not actually read any of Thomas Piketty’s major works. However, my dear wife Patricia has read the entirety of Capital in the Twenty-First Century, and I have received the benefit of breakfast summaries of its content.

I have read Raworth, and she writes: “Humanity’s 21st century challenge is to meet the needs of all within the means of the planet. In other words, to ensure that no one falls short on life’s essentials (from food and housing to healthcare and political voice), while ensuring that collectively we do not overshoot our pressure on Earth’s life-supporting systems, on which we fundamentally depend – such as a stable climate, fertile soils, and a protective ozone layer. The Doughnut of social and planetary boundaries is a playfully serious approach to framing that challenge, and it acts as a compass for human progress this century.” (p.

So much for the necessary theory. The next step is to operationalize it. On 2020-04-08, The Amsterdam City Doughnut was launched by Raworth and others, including Janine Benyus (1958 – ). This turns the Doughnut into a tool for transforming Amsterdam, downscaling the Doughnut to a manageable level.

Even the metropolis of Paris is undergoing a form of ruralization. Anne Hidalgo (1959 – ), re-elected as mayor on 2020-06-28, made the creation of the “ville du quart d’heure” – the quarter-hour/ 15-minute city – a pillar of her campaign. This concept was developed by Carlos Moreno (1959 – ), who believes the core of human activity in cities must move away from oil-era priorities of roads and car ownership. To do this “We need to reinvent the idea of urban proximity. We know it is better for people to work near to where they live, and if they can go shopping nearby and have the leisure and services they need around them too, it allows them to have a more tranquil existence.” Moreno’s chrono-urbanism involves or having leisure, work, and shopping close to home, especially “changing our relationship with time, essentially time relating to mobility.”

Paris, as the quarter-hour city’

This plan has been criticized for its urban planning policy that favors cycle paths at the expense of cars, and its proposal to make Paris a “100% bicycle” city, with new bicycle paths created by transforming parking spaces. It also wants to create new links between the Paris itself, and other cities in Greater Paris. Under active consideration is the creation of urban forests, on the forecourt of the town hall, the Gare de Lyon as well as behind the Opéra Garnier. In addition there is a proposal to create two large parks, one in the Bercy-Charenton district and another in the 15th arrondissement. To pedestrianize the centre of Paris, traffic in the first four arrondissements will be strictkly limited. It also promises to make the canteens 100% organic and to develop two large vegetable gardens in the woods of Vincennes and Boulogne. Hidalgo wants to transform the gates of Paris into squares, starting with the Porte de la Chapelle. The share of social and intermediate housing is to increase to 25% compared to 22.6% in 2020. Hidalgo is very critical of Airbnb, which she accuses of depriving Parisians of housing. To ensures that the city is clean, its budget will be increased from 500 million to one billion euros per year.

The weblog post will end with a quotation from Lewis Mumford that inspires reflection: “In the name of economy a thousand wasteful devices would be invented; and in the name of efficiency new forms of mechanical time-wasting would be devised: both processes gained speed through the nineteenth century and have come close to the limit of extravagant futility in our own time. But labor-saving devices could only achieve their end-that of freeing mankind for higher functions-if the standard of living remained stable. The dogma of increasing wants nullified every real economy and set the community in a collective squirrel-cage.”

3 Replies to “Ruralization”

  1. Unfortunate that so many towns and cities in North America lack a town square or plaza where people can stroll in groups or couples. North America is far too auto-centric. More walking and cycling paths do a lot to humanize a place. The association of walking with going to a shopping mall is ridiculous. Closed, artificial environments where the focus is on consumption is exactly the wrong model.

  2. Stanford economist Nicholas Bloom contends that the working-from-home economy will likely continue after the pandemic. He provides figures to say that 42% or the US labour force is now working from home full time; 33% are not working; 26% (mostly essential service workers) are working on business premises. If one looks at the US gross domestic product, working-from-home employees contribute 2/3 of US economic activity.
    This will probably mean that city centre growth will stall (or worse). “The upside is this will be a boom for suburbs and rural areas.” He also sees a transition from high-rise to low-rise buildings, and from city centres to industrial parks. He also sees a reduction in mass transit, as well as elevator rides. See: https://news.stanford.edu/2020/06/29/snapshot-new-working-home-economy/

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